It all started when the Dodgers left Brooklyn. Greed, gangs, skyrocketing teen pregnancy. Designer drugs, Internet spam, Howard Stern, the WWF.
The world just sort of spiraled out of control.
Frank Layden isn't saying the Dodgers are entirely to blame. But he's not saying they aren't, either.
"Who knows?" says the former Jazz president, whose heart broke the day the Bums moved West after the 1957 season. "Maybe God sent a plague. Vietnam, AIDS, a presidential assassination . . . we became a violent nation."
A pox on the lot of us.
It was Brooklyn's team, for goodness sake. They were friends, neighbors, the city's very own Boys of Summer. Then one day, greedy people decided they could get richer by moving to a Sun Belt mirage of a city. The beloved Dodgers were gone, never to return.
"I was thinking, 'Wait a minute, what's going on here? This is our team. These guys took them away from us,' " says Layden. "How much money can they get? They were rich already. Nowadays if someone asks what's wrong with sports, it's that prices are too high and salaries are too high — and that's because our value system is out of whack."
Certainly the Dodgers didn't leave for lack of support. They were a much-loved team that won six pennants in nine years. But they left anyway. Loyalty, friendship and community ties all took a back seat to money. Soon to follow were free agencies, player unions, agents, strikes and lockouts. "I think when the Dodgers left Brooklyn, the face of sports changed," Layden adds.
Championships, he notes, are now engineered in weight rooms and board rooms. You don't build a team, you buy one. Come see the home team wearing the 1920 replica uniforms — with a payroll bigger than that year's GNP.
Last week, though, he finally saw a flash of hope. In New York for a visit, he took the subway train to Coney Island. Upon disembarking, he caught the scent of two long-ago smells: the sea and Nathan's world famous hot dogs. The years melted away, and he was there again, a Brooklyn kid by the ocean. He remembered The Steeplechase, a since-demolished amusement park. Still standing are the Parachute Jump (though closed), the Wonder Wheel and, the granddaddy of 'em all, the Cyclone roller coaster.
"That," says Layden, "was the ride (in which) every red-blooded American boy would scoop up his girlfriend and protect her from the dangers of the Cyclone. You could hear the screams. You'd get a couple of Nathan's hot dogs, go on the Cyclone, go up on the Wonder Wheel . . . it doesn't get any better than that."
Unless, of course, you took the train to Ebbets Field to see the Boys: Duke, Gil, PeeWee, Erskine, Furillo, Newcombe. Layden even saw Jackie Robinson's historic first game.
Not surprisingly, he never forgave the Dodgers for leaving. He still has two signed pictures of Duke Snider, a lithograph and an original brick from Ebbets Field, as well as several original Dodgers hats.
"But the best prize of all was Barbara Layden," he says.
Frank grew up not far from the ballpark on Stillwell Avenue. Barbara lived on Beford, which ran along the right field wall. Frank played there many times as a high school star and aspiring major leaguer, even trying out with the club. But when the Dodgers left, and the stadium was demolished, he was crestfallen.
This story, though, actually has a happy ending. Last week, after 44 years of yearning, he went back to Brooklyn for a game. The Class A Cyclones — named after the roller coaster — play at a new Coney Island stadium. Layden attended the Cyclone's second home game ever, wearing a team ball cap.
There he saw hundreds, perhaps thousands of old men, drawn like tides to the moon, wearing long-forgotten Dodger hats. They were eating hot dogs, drinking soda and beer, needling the umpires.
It was 1955 again, the year the Dodgers won the Series.
They weren't there to see Derek Jeter or Mike Piazza. They were there to see Brooklyn's team.
The Bums had come home.
Layden, at last, was content.
"I can't tell you how wonderful it was," he says.
Then. And now.